A Hearts side supplemented by four new signings suffered a pratfall on Pratt Street, speared at the death following a contribution from one their most revered former sons.
In a deeply unsatisfactory end to the fourth-round tie from Hearts’ point of view, what many suspected might happen came to pass.
The tickets are already all sold out for the Hearts fans’ tribute dinner to former player Rudi Skacel in March, which is just as well. Because their hero’s searing shot from the edge of the box was flicked past Jack Hamilton by fellow substitute Declan McManus in a dismaying end to the match for the visitors. Hearts, who had taken a first-half lead through Jamie Walker, had simply not done enough to merit the win.
They do at least have a second bite at the cherry on Burns night on Wednesday. But this result means it is now just one win from six since Ian Cathro took charge in December, with a hazardous-looking tie against local rivals Hibernian waiting in the fifth round should they prevail in the replay.
The ingredients were all there for a shock yesterday so perhaps there’s a positive to be taken from Hearts featuring in the fifth round draw at all.
An opposition manager reportedly nursing a grievance, a poor run of results heading into the clash and the aforementioned changes on the back of three weeks of inaction due to the Premiership’s winter break. It all made for a potentially fraught afternoon for the Tynecastle side. And so it proved.
Gary Locke was clearly delighted to put one over a club, or more specifically a regime, that considered him dispensable three summers ago. Skacel, meanwhile, signalled to the Hearts fans after the late equaliser, as if seeking forgiveness. But he made a point of acknowledging the home fans at the end rather than the away supporters, who had greeted his 80th-minute appearance with such loud acclaim.
Locke’s motivation for turning, eventually, to Skacel was self-evident. In the absence of much in the way of inspiration from his hard-working side, there was little to lose by letting loose the 37 year-old, whose preoccupation with matters Hearts had begun to grate with the Raith fans. On too came Declan McManus, another player with something to prove to the Kirkcaldy denizens after a run of ten games without a goal.
Both combined in the 89th minute to provide a slow-burning tie with a dramatic finale. Skacel had been a rather less pivotal figure for the majority of the match, clad in a large tracksuit on a bitterly cold day in Kirkcaldy. Ryan Hardie was preferred in favour of him when Locke made a first change after 68 minutes, with Chris Johnston withdrawn.
Even when Skacel came on, after a double substitution that saw Mark Stewart and Jordan Thompson depart, he struggled to make an impact. He’d barely touched the ball before swinging a right foot at a corner. The ball might well have beaten Hamilton in any case but McManus provided a touch to divert it past the ‘keeper. Hearts players’ complained long and hard, sensing McManus had been offside. But after consultation with his farside assistant, referee John Beaton rightly signalled a goal.
It could have got worse for the visitors in time added on, with Hamilton forced into a parry from towering Raith defender Jean-Yves M’Voto’s header, with the loose ball eventually scrambled clear.
Morrissey’s Everyday is Like Sunday, one of the songs chosen by the Stark’s Park DJ, had previously set the tone for an afternoon of surprisingly low-level entertainment prior to this late drama. Raith were committed and industrious but hitherto lacked the touch of class to hurt Hearts, understandably given the Kirkcaldy club’s current form. Their recent results had not inspired much confidence. Without a win since October, they’ve gone nine Championship matches without a win, scoring just three times.
It started off as a fairly comfortable afternoon for Hearts – and their phalanx of new arrivals. Of the four, Aaron Hughes seemed to settle quickest, drawing on all his years of experience to cope with a potentially tricky debut. He teamed up well at centre-half with John Souttar, who, at 20, is 17 years younger.
This mix of youth and experience seemed set to serve Hearts well. But there were some nervous moments, particularly in the second-half, with Raith shooting towards their own fans. An unmarked Mark Stewart hit the bar from the edge of the six-yard box after Kevin McHattie’s cut-back. It was a poor miss but the striker performed well otherwise, holding the ball up and proving a nuisance for the Hearts’ backline, three of whom were making their debuts.
Slovenian right-back Andraz Struna and former Hamilton Accies left-back Lennard Sowah joined fellow newcomer Hughes in defence. Malaury Martin, meanwhile, started for the first time in midfield but struggled to make an impact.
But Hearts seemed set fair to progress after Walker’s 37th-minute goal, neatly struck past Kevin Cuthbert after Don Cowie had intercepted Thompson’s loose pass. However, a perplexing lack of urgency in the second half means the prospect of a second successive fifth-round Edinburgh derby remains on hold.